When Matthew C. Woessner ran for a faculty senate office at Pennsylvania State University in 2014, a colleague praised the political science professor before a leadership caucus.
“He has one flaw,” James Ruiz, associate professor of criminal justice at Penn State Harrisburg, told faculty. “He’s a Republican.”
Laughter erupted, the kind that signified such a thing didn’t matter, even in a room largely filled with Democratic colleagues.
Academia has long been known for its more left-leaning teaching force, and studies over time have pondered the impact. Woessner, a lifelong Republican, has enjoyed popularity as a minority conservative voice on Penn State’s Harrisburg campus for 18 years and has focused much of his research on measuring what if any effect political beliefs have on the success of students and professors.
“It’s hard to be a Republican in liberal academia and I think he’s done it very well,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has fostered dialogue among students and institutions with different political views. “He’s been true to his discipline and his beliefs. I don’t share his political beliefs, but I admire him.”
Woessner’s most recent study, coauthored with two colleagues, found that a “tiny amount” of the slippage in grades that conservative students experience in college could be linked to their political beliefs but not definitively blamed on professor bias or discrimination, he said.
“The good news is that almost all of this is merit-based,” he said. “The bad news is none of it should be politics.”
Woessner and his colleagues analyzed data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute based on questionnaires distributed to 7,000 college students nationwide. Students had to self-report their GPAs, identify their political leanings, and state their beliefs on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and affirmative action. The differences, so small that Woessner said he didn’t want to specifically quantify them, were most pronounced in the arts and humanities, which would be expected.
“There’s less potential for ideological bias in chemistry,” he explained.
He and his colleagues found that conservative students enter college with higher GPAs than their liberal counterparts, but over four years, their advantage significantly erodes. Almost all of the change can be attributed to students’ corresponding SAT scores, which measure college aptitude.
But the rest appears to be the result of something else. It could be discrimination or bias, he said. Or, he said, it could be something far more benign: A liberal professor may know how to reach his liberal students better. Conservative students may fare better in a more structured high school environment. Students leaving a conservative home for the first time may experience more “culture shock” at college.
“We need more study to determine the cause,” he said.
He and his wife, April Kelly-Woessner, a political science professor and president of the faculty assembly at Elizabethtown College, were among the pioneers studying the effect of political ideology on students and professors 15 years ago. He initially assumed they would find students were indoctrinated by their professors. They didn’t.
“We found very little political movement” among students, he said. “When there was movement, it didn’t appear to be tied to the professor’s politics.”
Woessner said he and his colleagues in the political science department try their best to present issues objectively. Still, most students can guess his political affiliation a few weeks into class, he said.
“They pick up on the smallest cues,” he said.
Born in Florida, Woessner grew up in Los Angeles and got his bachelor’s at UCLA. He went on to Ohio State University for his master’s and doctorate in political science and then came to Penn State. (On Sept. 30, he starts a new job as a professor of institutional research at the United States Army War College.) He said he picked up a lot of his political cues from his father, an aerospace engineer who was Republican.
Early on, he saw politics as a kind of “warfare” between good and bad. His professors encouraged him to see things more analytically.
“Over time, I transformed from a Rush Limbaugh into a George Will," he said. He began to “discuss things much more gently” and became "far more persuasive.”
As a student, he said, he was treated well by professors, including his sociology professor, a liberal, who often called on him for an “alternative point of view.”
“She didn’t seem to hold my difference of opinion or views against me,” he said.
Politics have become more inflamed during Donald Trump’s presidency, he acknowledged. But it hasn’t shaken his relationship with Penn State colleagues.
“My colleagues have made me a better scholar and better political thinker," he said. “I’m surrounded by people who think I’m wrong and I have the advantage of getting that alternative point of view, which helps me sharpen my own views, but also keeps me from going off on a ledge.”
His colleagues say they benefit, too.
“His conservative input enriched, and never hindered, my understanding of politics, at the university or in the public sphere more broadly,” said Nicholas Rowland, a sociology professor at Penn State Altoona and president of the faculty senate, which represents Penn State’s faculty across its 24 campuses.
In 2013, Woessner earned the respect of colleagues when he took on a leading role in defeating Penn State’s wellness proposal that would have required employees to undergo medical testing and disclose private health information or have their pay docked.
“He is the one who has the nerve to stand up in the foxhole, and that’s something in academia that is really sometimes nonexistent … when it comes to faculty fighting for themselves,” said Ruiz, the retired criminal justice professor.
Woessner went on to be elected faculty senate chair. He has focused on important procedural changes that improved faculty governance, said Michael Bérubé, an English professor at University Park, expert on academic freedom and immediate past chair of the senate.
“I admired his commitment to good government in the faculty context,” Bérubé said. “That transcended any other beliefs we may have had.”
This year, Woessner won a university-wide award recognizing the faculty or staff member who contributed the most to the “economic, physical, mental, or social welfare of the faculty.”
As for politics, Woessner is frustrated these days with both the right and the left.
“I don’t even know if I can call myself a conservative right now, because I don’t know what that means,” he said. “I’m not a Trump fan, but I’m also very concerned about the Democrats and their policies.”
Liberals and conservatives are wrongheaded, too, about college campuses, he said. Conservative students aren’t under widespread attack and regularly given bad grades because of their political views, as some conservatives would suggest, he said.
“But there are problems and challenges in being a political minority," he said, "that make it more difficult in some cases for conservatives.”